Authors: Pamela Labud
“What's happening to me?”
The duke tilted her head upward and gazed into her eyes. “Do you truly not remember? Or are you just mocking me by making me state the obvious?”
Caro bit down on a retort and pulled from his embrace. “I remember. My brains aren't so addled that I'd ever forget the events of this evening.”
Her new husband smiled and Caro saw that the smile appeared genuine and not a smirk. If it had been the latter, it would have taken a great deal of restraint to keep from slapping it right off of his face.
“Shall we finish this and be on our way?”
Caro nodded. “I'll need to go home and gather my thingsâ¦”
“That's already been taken care of. While my aunt and your sister were seeing to your dress, Amelia sent her staff to retrieve your belongings and your mother. They have packed a traveling case for you, and your mother is now residing here at Summerton.”
“You fetched my mother?”
“I have. And since I've invited Beatrice to stay with Amelia so she can be her sponsor for the remainder of the London season, we thought it best to bring her here. We didn't want to leave her unattended, since you won't be going home. It would have been nice to have her here for the wedding but your sister was against it. Beatrice said that it would only confuse your mother terribly.”
“It would. But the houseâ”
“Is now someone else's property, is it not?”
“Then you need never return there. I assure you, when it comes to such tasks, my aunt takes the situation seriously. She's even brought your mother's housekeeper, Mrs. Danley, and added her to our staff at full pay. I daresay Amelia could have helped Wellington mobilize the entire English army, had he but asked for her assistance. She'll have your family settled before the next sun sets.”
“Well, as long as Mother is all right.”
The duke held out his hand and Caro took it. Her new husband leaned toward her. A collective sigh went around the room.
“I vow to you with my very life, Caroline Hawkins. From now on your sister and mother will want for nothing. They are part of my family and will be afforded the same respect and comfort that any family of a peer would receive.”
Caroline nodded, for no words could express how grateful she was that the constant worry over her mother and Beatrice was finally lifted. Accordingly, she hoped that the ball of ice that had formed in her throat the very moment her life had careened out of control would dissipate at last. Hot tears stung her eyes but she quickly blinked them away.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Ashton,” he murmured low. “Or Ash, if you like.”
“Ashton.” She drew in a shaky breath. “Caro. It's what my mother and sister call me. Except when they're cross with me. Then it's Caroline Suzette Hawkins.”
“I shall endeavor to do my best never to be cross with you, Caroline. Of course, I can't promise that I might not slip every once in a while.”
“And I shall try my best to not be angry with you. Or at least not without very good reason.”
He laughed. “That seems fair enough. Shall we go?”
Caro grasped the arm he offered and took her first steps as the new Duchess of Summerton.
“At last,” Amelia said as she held her hands out to Caro. “I finally have a niece. It's about time, too,” she said, sending a pointed expression toward her nephew.
“Yes, ma'am.” Ash bowed to her. He had to admit that it was possible he'd been wrong about the whole marriage issue. It was quite pleasing to see his aunt's joy. His union, while it meant little to him, obviously meant a great deal to her.
By giving her a grand-niece or grand-nephew, he would be continuing the family that she'd loved and had devoted herself to. For all she'd done for him over the years, Ash knew he owed her that. Now he could repay the debt she'd told him long ago had never existed.
“I take it you shall be leaving on holiday right away? Where will you go, Ashton?” Amelia asked.
“I thought it might be best to stay here for a while. Give Caroline a chance to acquaint herself with her new station.”
Amelia smiled broadly, then turned to Caroline. “Good. I'll begin immediately scheduling your appointments. Let's see, first there is my mantua maker. Then I daresay you shall need a new wardrobe to match your new station. And we must begin sending out calling cards.”
“Must we?” Caro asked.
“Oh, yes! The sooner we get you mingling with polite society, the better. It will make your transition into your new position as smooth as possible.” Amelia went on to name several functions that were on the horizon.
Ash saw Caro's face pale at the mention of the list of events his aunt insisted she attend. Amelia promptly followed that with an extensive shopping list, and then mentioned several charitable organizations that titled ladies became involved with, and so on.
Curious. His Caroline could face down a lion in his own den, but force her to meet with a few hundred of the
and she withered like a violet left too long in the sun without water.
“Auntie, I'm sure Caroline appreciates your introducing her to all of her obligations as a duchess, but it's a bit soon, don't you think?”
“Soon? I daresay, the quicker she gets in good with the ton, the easier it will be for her.”
“I understand, but since Caro and I have barely even met. I think we need a little time to ourselves.”
His aunt's brow furrowed. “Truly? Well, I suppose you're right. You didn't have a proper courtship, after all.”
“But if you stay in London, everyone will demand to see your new bride. It would be very bad form to refuse them.”
Ash knew she was right. The moment his peers knew of his marriage, they'd be flocking to their door like geese around a well-stocked pond.
He leaned toward Caro and whispered, “Do you trust me?”
“Do you trust me? It's a simple enough question.”
Seconds passed as she chewed her bottom lip. Finally, she let out a slow breath.
“I married you, didn't I?”
Ash smiled. There was the fire he'd seen earlier. “Yes, you did.” He turned back to his aunt. “I've decided to take Caro to Slyddon for a month. When we get back, I'm sure she'll be ready to meet your friends.”
It was his aunt's turn to pale. “But Ashton, what about her wardrobe? And, she needs to meet the staff at Summerton. Oh, andâ”
“Amelia, I imagine we'll be married a good while. There will be plenty of time for that, later.”
“ButâSlyddon? I meanâ¦”
Ash held up his hand. “Enough, Auntie. I promise I will take good care of my new bride. At the end of the month we'll be back in London and ready to begin our lives as the Duke and Duchess of Summerton.”
“If you think that's best,” she said, clearly disappointed.
“I do.” Ash turned to his new bride. “Shall we go? I'll have the carriages readied in no time at all. We'll leave at first light.”
He winked at Caro. She hesitated but then nodded. Ash couldn't help his amusement. True, she looked like a rabbit caught in a snare right now. He was sure it wouldn't be long before she'd be roaring at him like the lioness he'd come to admire.
This might not have been a marriage made in Heaven, but he had the feeling that with his opposing Caroline Hawkins, it was going to be a hell of a lot of fun.
“How did she take the journey here?” Caro whispered as she crept into the darkened bedroom. Any change in her mother's surroundings or routines could set her into a delusional spin, and it would take days to calm her.
“Actually,” Beatrice answered, “the duchess told me she did quite well. She said that Mama thought she was on some grand adventure and that she couldn't wait to see how it all ended.”
Caro understood how she felt, since she had been thrust into a grand adventure of her own.
“She's sleeping peacefully now,” Caro whispered, standing beside the bed. “I was afraid that she wouldn't take the news well. Strangers pulling her from her bed in the middle of the night. I had so hoped to keep her at the cottage.” She sighed. “Well, at least Mrs. Danley was with her.”
Bea took Caro by the arm and steered her out into the hall and gently closed the door behind them. For the first time since they'd arrived for the Summerton ball, she was able to take a deep breath.
“What a place this is,” Caro muttered. All around her, gold-framed landscape paintings adorned the walls, and a deep red Aubusson rug ran the entire length of the hall. Compared to their little home, Summerton Hall was like a celestial palace, complete with marble columns at each end and the ceiling covered with sculpted angels looking down upon them.
“I know,” Bea said. “It's such a beautiful place. I'm sure that once she's used to it, Mama will love it.”
“I hope so.” Caro sighed as the two made their way down the winding stairs to the first floor. Just as they reached the landing, Caro turned and gave her sister a huge hug.
“Oh, Bea. I'm so sorry.”
“Sorry? Whatever for?”
“It was supposed to be your chance to find happiness. I've gone and ruined it all.”
“You've done nothing of the sort. Besides which, I never asked you to find my happiness, did I?”
“I'd hoped that once you were married and your security was assured, you'd have nothing to worry you and you'd eventually become happy. I know it seems cruel and heartless of me, but I only had your best interests at heart. I could take care of Mother and you would be free.”
Bea a placed her hands on her hips. “I swear, Caroline Suzette Hawkins, you never listen. I've accepted that my one true love is forever lost to me. I'm through with such trivial things as love and marriage. It is I who will spend her life alone, not you.”
“You're wrong, Bea. You're such a lovely and talented girl. I know you'll fall in love again. The next time it will be with the right sort of man.”
Beatrice waved Caro away. “You are so busy worrying about me, Caroâwhat about your happiness? What do you really want?”
Caro took a sharp breath. What did she want? “I want you and Mother to be safe and free from worry.”
“And after that?”
“I hadn't really thought about it.”
“Well, you need to think about it now.”
“I don't know. I mean, I never consideredâ¦I thought all I needed was a good placement and a chance one day to travel, perhaps.”
“What about the duke? You seemed quite happy with him when we walked in on you both tonight.”
Caro's face burned at the memory. “That was a mistake. To be honest, I never considered marriage for myself. I was never the one the boys chased after.”
Bea laughed. “They might have if you ever gave them the least bit of encouragement.”
“That's nonsense. Your beauty and personality shone so brightly, they only had eyes for you, little sister.”
“I won't argue with you further, though I know that's not the truth of it, Caro. I will tell you this. His Grace had his eyes on you from the beginning.” She paused. “He really likes you.”
“He likes to torment me, you mean.” Caro sighed. “What happened between us was as much my fault as it was his. He only did what I chose to let him.”
Of course, Caro didn't tell her sister that for the life of her, her husband's attention was the very last thing she'd wantedâor that she still felt the duke's kisses on her lips, his hands on her skin. Even now, hours later, her body fairly buzzed with nervous excitement.
“I would never think anything else, Caro.” Bea paused, leaning forward. “Admit it. You do like him, don't you?”
Did she? How preposterous!
“I suppose he's a decent man, underneath that tough hide of his.” Caro wrapped her arms around her waist. “Don't think he's being overly gallant, rescuing an unfortunate miss from disgrace. His motives are as much fueled by his interests as are mine. He needed a quick and ready bride and I was fool enough to stumble into his trap. Don't read anything more than that into his behavior this evening.”
Ash paced beside the carriage. “What's taking the blasted woman so long?”
Michael leaned against the gatepost and yawned. “What's the matter? Now that you've gotten through the wedding, you're worried about the wedding night?”
“Not at all.” Ashton glanced again at his pocket watch. “It'll be full daylight in an hour. I want to be well on the road before then.”
“You know, once it's learned that you've shot off in the middle of the night, you'll set the tongues a wagging. They'll be saying Lord Fortune is at it again.”
“Ha. As if they didn't have enough to go on about.” Ash sighed. “And Amelia will be in the thick of it.”
“She loves you, Ash.”
“She loves being in charge of my life and the lives of everyone around her.” He chuckled. “I have to give her credit. She took to managing my bride and her family immediately. I'll bet she's in her study right now writing letters announcing Caroline's introduction into Almack's.”
“Surely you don't blame her. She misses having a family. What a tragedy, losing both her son and her husband so close together.”
Ash winced. Indeed, their loss was an ache that plagued him still. “It was the worst thing imaginable.” He sighed. “With any luck, there'll be a new niece or nephew for her to dote on soon, and the rest of us will finally be afforded some peace.”
“Well worth the trouble, I'd say.”
The doors to the manse opened and Caroline came out, followed by Beatrice, Amelia, and half of the house staff.
“At last,” Ash muttered under his breath. “Caroline, ladies.” He bowed low. “Thank you for your haste,” he said, doing his level best to keep the sarcasm from his voice. “If you are ready, we need to get on the road as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Caroline said. Turning to her sister, she gave her a firm hug. “Please, let me know if you or Mother need anything. I'll come back immediately, I promise.”
“They'll be fine, I assure you,” Ash said, doing his best to keep impatience from his tone. “My aunt employs a most capable staff.” He gently but firmly took her arm and guided her toward the carriage.
“I know, Your Grace, but really, we'll be gone an entire monthâ”
“Which will be ending before we can even get out of the drive, if we don't get moving.”
Caroline turned to him. “You're exaggerating. We have plenty of time.”
Ash drew a deep breath, his patience fading. He suddenly had the suspicion that if he didn't get the upper hand from the onset, he would be damned hard-pressed to be in control of their lives ever again.
“Not if we're to miss the worst of the traffic leaving the city. The delivery wagons will be blocking the roads and cost us a great deal of time as it is. I don't wish to sit idle waiting on traffic. The two of us togetherâ¦hours alone in the tight confines of the carriageâ¦”
“Oh,” she said, glancing back at her family. “I suppose we should be going.”
After hugging her sister and thanking Amelia once again, she finally turned to Ash and held her hand out to him.
“Everyone rest assured,” he said as he helped Caroline into the barouche, “I shall take good care of her.”
Caroline's sister stepped up to him. “See that you do, Your Grace. See that you do.”
Ash bowed to her, and then muttered to himself as he climbed into the carriage. “Threatened by both sisters in one night. What a surprise.”